$5 million pledged for Hippodrome

Towson foundation says commitment hinges on $4 million match

October 23, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The France-Merrick Foundation confirmed yesterday that it is pledging $5 million to help turn the shuttered Hippodrome Theater in downtown Baltimore into a showcase for Broadway shows - but with strings attached.

Under the deal, the Towson foundation will guarantee $1 million. The remaining $4 million must be matched by other private donors, said Walter D. Pinkard Jr., France-Merrick's vice president.

Planners hope to complete the $56 million renovation, a public-private expense, by fall 2003.

Despite the conditions, the leader of the nonprofit group heading private fund raising called the challenge grant a major step forward. "It gets us very close to what we need to build the theater," said Mark Sissman, newly hired chief executive officer of Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts.

Sissman and others involved in the financially complicated Hippodrome rehabilitation effort said the grant should spur others to contribute because France-Merrick will match those dollars.

"Obviously, we're very pleased if it's an incentive to raise money for the project," said Robert Boras, project manager at the Maryland Stadium Authority, which is overseeing construction.

Reviving the 2,200-seat theater at 12 N. Eutaw St. is considered a key part of the city's attempt to transform downtown's long-struggling west side. Plans call for the theater, which opened in 1914 as a vaudeville house, to play host to 200 shows, concerts and community events a year.

Pinkard said the grant is a "unique opportunity" to help the west side while also boosting performing arts in Baltimore. He said it is common for foundations to issue challenge grants.

Counting the foundation's $5 million commitment, Sissman said about $10 million has been pledged from private sources. But because some of that money will arrive over time, bridge loans will be necessary, he said.

Also, while $10 million exceeds the $7.5 million private fund-raising piece of the construction budget, the performing arts center hopes to raise upward of $15 million, in part to set up an endowment and to prepare for cost overruns.

But the center also needs to pay off a $4.1 million debt it incurred overseeing the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, a smaller venue deemed unsuitable for larger shows.

The debt came in two chunks, said Greater Baltimore Committee President Donald P. Hutchinson, a member of the center board: a $1.5 million bank loan a half-decade ago when the theater was "likely to go out of business" and a $2.6 million loan from a company hired to operate the Mechanic.

"We owe $4.1 million," Hutchinson said, "but that's all part of the community effort to get the [Hippodrome] theater built and pay off the debt."

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